MARCH 25, 2016
I learned something interesting a couple years ago about the writing credits on a movie. If there's more than one screenwriter, they're listed with either an "&" or an "and" between them, and there's a reason for the non-conformity: the "&" means the two writers worked together, whereas the "and" means one rewrote the other's script. Alas, even though Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice feels like the sort of movie that would skip an opening title sequence and save it for the end titles, we learn right off the bat (heh) that the film's two credited writers, David Goyer and Chris Terrio did not work together - there's an "and", not an ampersand, and by god does it show. At times I wondered if one actually rewrote the other script or if they wrote completely separate ones and Zack Snyder just took whatever he liked from each with no rhyme or reason, but either way, even if this movie makes a billion dollars I wouldn't expect either of them to consider it their finest work.
To be fair to them, I'm sure if they were hired to write a movie where Batman fights Superman (and then probably teams up with him against a villain) and nothing else, they'd probably do a fine job (well, Terrio could; Goyer has given us little reason to have faith in his abilities unless he's backed up by filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro or Christopher Nolan). But that's not what they were hired to do - they're also writing a prequel for a Justice League movie, a prequel to a Wonder Woman movie, a sequel to a Batman movie that doesn't exist, a sequel to a Superman movie that established Lex Luthor, and, when time allows, a sequel to Man of Steel, which may have problems but is comic movie perfection compared to this mess.
I'm not exaggerating when I say the first hour of this film seems like a collection of deleted scenes: there is zero connection between most of them, with more "and then this happens" storytelling (for lack of a better term) than I have ever witnessed in a major film. At times it made me long for the relative cohesion of the Amazing Spider-Man or Transformers movies, because as bad as they are at least I could usually track the characters from point A to B, a feat that is impossible here. For example, there's a scene where we've just cut to the Daily Planet offices, and Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) wonders where Clark Kent is - it's the sort of scene that should belong right before we cut to Clark/Superman doing something far more exciting than sitting at his day job desk. But this is BVS (I have taken to calling it Beavis, for the record), so after he inquires about Clark we cut to... Lois Lane, meeting with a source as she works on her next story. Then we cut to Lex Luthor, doing his thing. So why is the Fishburne scene there, exactly? It doesn't inform the narrative in any way, it doesn't offer insight into any of its characters, and it's probably long forgotten by the time Zack Snyder bothers to return to Clark - not to mention that we never know why Perry was looking for him in the first place. You can ask that "why am I watching this particular scene?" question about a lot of them, though that one stuck out as particularly egregious.
And that's because a lot of the other disconnected scenes have an answer: because DC has a bunch of movies down the road planned, and since they didn't have the patience to do this right like Marvel (mostly) did, they need to get a lot of the Justice League pieces into place in time for that movie, which is coming in 2017 and starts shooting next week I think. If you want to compare to what Marvel has done (and there's no reason not to, since they're obviously swiping from their "shared universe" playbook), if Man of Steel was their Iron Man, kicking the whole thing off, then this is their Avengers - without Iron Man 2, Captain America, Incredible Hulk, and Thor in between. At the very least the movie often feels like it should have had another Man of Steel film and the debut of Ben Affleck's Batman (which, as confusing as it is with Nolan listed as a producer on this movie, is NOT a recast version of the character Christian Bale played - it's a "remake" just as Bale's was to the Burton/Schumacher series) before this one, because there's a lot of ground to cover just to get Batman worked into things - at the expense of Superman's runtime. Indeed, Affleck is billed over Cavill, which is kind of weird since Cavill's the one who is coming back and "Batfleck" is technically being introduced - this transition would have been a lot smoother if they had settled into their roles and with their characters more clearly defined. At one point Bruce Wayne pauses to reflect on a beat up Robin costume with a scary Joker message scribbled on it - a moment that carries exactly zero weight since we have never even seen ANY version of Robin with ANY version of Joker in a live action movie since the 1960's*, let alone in this particular incarnation. I get the inclination for wanting to focus on a Batman that's been around for 20 years when the story begins (as opposed to another goddamn origin tale), but there's gotta be a way to do it without it feeling like you actually missed a movie.
Now, I mostly liked Man of Steel (and I should note I'm nowhere near as big of a Superman fan as I am of Batman), but one thing that felt odd to me and certainly didn't sit well with a lot of Supes fans is that he was kind of a brooding jerk in the movie, as opposed to the uplifting hero we're used to from the comics. In Man of Steel I was fine with this - they were doing the Superman version of the Nolan Batfilms, and it was a total 180 from the 2006 Superman film (that I didn't really like at all). But when this brooding Superman faces off against Batman, the appeal is mostly lost, because darkness is Batman's thing. Lex has this little speech about their impending fight (which he orchestrates) and spells out their opposite standings: "darkness vs. light!" and things like that, but where's the light? It's not night and day, it's 11pm and 1030pm. Snyder attempts to dig himself out of the hole he dug by simply making this Batman even darker than usual (meaning he kills people, without a moment's hesitation or contemplation), making Superman seem more "golden" in comparison, but it's not a particularly successful gambit. Plus, with a new Batman that we've only known for an hour, it's hardly an iconic meeting anyway - the ideal version of this movie would have been released in 1994 and featured Michael Keaton facing off against Christopher Reeve. Instead they made Speechless, and we get this.
Back to all the sequel setups. Also along for this clumsy ride is Wonder Woman, played by the otherworldly Gal Gadot (Gisele from the Fast movies), though she's never really introduced in the narrative. She appears as a mysterious thief who steals one of Bruce Wayne's little spy gadgets because it has a photograph on it that proves she's at least 100 years old, and I guess that'd be a problem in a world where everyone knows Superman is an alien and they're OK enough with him that they build statues in his honor despite having gotten thousands of people killed during his fight with Zod (which we see from Bruce Wayne's perspective in an opening scene that is also far and away the best the movie ever gets). Anyway, she's in civilian mode for 80% of the bloated runtime, but when Lex creates Doomsday (out of Zod's corpse - OK?) and sets him on a warpath against our other heroes, she springs into action, getting off a plane at once and suddenly reappearing in her WW costume (did she have it on her carry-on?) to join the fight. I'm not even sure if her name (Diana Prince) is ever even fully revealed, though with so much information crammed and offered haphazardly throughout the film I suppose I myself could have been in it somewhere and I wouldn't have caught me. And again, if they didn't have to spend so much time re-explaining Batman to us (including yet another parents getting murdered scene) they probably could have used a little more time on introducing her - after all, except for a quick bit in Thor we didn't really meet Hawkeye until Avengers. Not everyone has to have their own movie before they all meet up, but they certainly need more than ONE MOVIE TOTAL before throwing everyone together.
And yes, three other JL members are introduced, quickly, and in a scene so abysmally bad I couldn't believe that they stuck it into the middle of the movie instead of at the end of the credits, where its lack of connection to the narrative wouldn't be as jarring. Despite having plenty on his plate, Bruce sends Diana (this is probably where her name is shown, now that I think of it) an email with some videos attached (he got them off the doohickey that she had stolen from him - she gave it back because she couldn't break the decryption), and those videos are of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg (who is created by Joe Morton, which I thought was inspired casting), who Bruce assumes are all aliens like her and Superman I guess? I dunno. It's really awful, and just adds to the problem - it only exists because DC is doubling down on their impatience by releasing Justice League before any of the other stand-alone films come along besides Wonder Woman's. Flash and Aquaman are coming AFTER the JL movie, so now they're basically going ahead and making Avengers 2 before making Hulk or Captain America (or even a proper Batman movie, not to mention the seemingly non-existent Man of Steel 2 unless they change their schedule plans). And just to make all this crap even more frustrating, the picture has Chris Pine standing next to Gal Gadot - it's such a pointless distraction that I had to laugh. Ebert famously referred to another Ben Affleck movie as a two and a half hour trailer (Armageddon) - if he was alive he might be forced to take it back and use it to describe this film, because it is almost quite literally a two and a half hour trailer for all of the movies that they've dated and cast but haven't actually made yet. And they're using time that should be spent on THIS movie's plot to set them all up, rather than do it organically like their competition has done. You know, Age of Ultron wasn't that great, but they've earned enough goodwill by this point that we're still stoked for Civil War next month - who can possibly be excited for Justice League (also from Snyder) when he can't even handle doing 2-3 heroes in a movie? And when it's the first time we'll really be seeing half of its members?
When you strip all that crap out, you're left with the skeleton of what might be a pretty fun comic book movie where Lex Luthor arranges for Batman and Superman to fight, only for them to realize what he's up to and join forces to stop him, at which point he springs another villain on them to battle. Lex's plan is easy enough to engineer since Batman already hates Superman for all of the destruction he caused in Metropolis (it took out a Wayne Enterprises building, in fact), though the script curiously has Lex deal only with Superman - Lex and Bruce Wayne's entire relationship in the movie is shown in the trailer. I guess since Lex doesn't know Bruce is Batman that he didn't think much of him, but why not have him figure that out? After all, he's got files on Aquaman for some reason, so it's not completely impossible for him to have at least given a passing interest in who the masked vigilante one town over (yep, Gotham and Metropolis are neighbors here) might be. Wait, why am I suggesting MORE subplots for them to toss in? Perhaps with fewer characters in the mix there might be time to explain why anyone does anything, so I wouldn't be muttering "Wait, what?" to myself so often. For example, Batman crafts a spear out of Kryptonite to fight Superman with, but once they patch up their differences he tosses it aside. Lois Lane then throws it into the water (why, I have no idea), but later Batman realizes he can use it to fight Doomsday, who is currently just sort of standing there on an uninhabited island. His plan, for some reason, is to lead Doomsday back to Gotham (where the spear is, probably near some innocent people**) to get it, rather than just fly back and grab it while Doomsday chills out not bothering anyone. Once Batman arrives on the scene, he suddenly forgets all about the damn spear, but luckily for him Lois suddenly knows how much they need it and dives into the water to get it, while Batman sits most of the Doomsday fight out. Huh?
At least I get Doomsday's motives: he's a giant ugly monster and therefore wants to kill our heroes, as is tradition. Lex, on the other hand, has a plan that makes no real sense, and we're never given much of a reason to fear him as a villain. Except for showing Bruce's parents dying (which is necessary for a later, very silly plot point involving a funny coincidence about Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne to really register), Snyder and his writers just assume you know who all of these people are, why they're important, etc. So Lex (who, it should be noted for those who forgot, was not in Man of Steel) just shows up and everyone's already suspicious of him for some reason, and he's already obsessed with Superman because... uh, he is in the comics, I guess. I mean, I know that the primary audience for these movies are comic fans, but it's a baffling decision to alienate non-readers by not giving even rudimentary background information on who anyone actually IS. If you hadn't seen a Batman movie before, you'd be completely baffled as to who Alfred is, why the Waynes were important, etc. Plus, fans of the comic will be angry about all of the changes anyway (Batman killing people, Lex being so young, Doomsday being made out of Zod's corpse, etc.) so who exactly was Snyder trying to please here, anyway, besides WB stockholders?
He sure as hell wasn't out to win over families. I felt legitimately sad for all of the excited kids who were running into the theater before it began, because they probably spent most of the following 150 minutes alternating between being bored and terrified. Both of the heroes are jerks, there are scary nightmare scenes throughout (I momentarily wondered if WB was roping Freddy into the mix), and there's a shocking lack of any big action scenes until the final half hour, which is just a CGI fest on par with the terrible finale of last summer's (otherwise superior) Fantastic Four movie. There's even a suicide bomber scene, and the only time we see Batman doing anything "regular day" is when he's rescuing some sex slaves (that he's also terrified in the process). And people thought Batman Returns was too fucked up for kids? It's Schumacher-level goofy compared to this, and I honestly feel bad for kids whose parents will (rightfully) deny them permission to see a new Superman movie because it's too grim and upsetting. Since there's such animosity between Marvel and DC fans I won't use Spider-Man 2 as the example of a perfect, well rounded comic movie (as much as I'd like to), so let's use the first Batman (1989) instead - it's got some adult-leaning elements, but I'd still be OK showing it to my kid when he was 7 or 8, i.e. the age kids probably start really reading comics and wanting to see their heroes in big-screen adventures. This? There are a couple of R-rated movies I'd feel more comfortable showing him first.
OK, a million words later you're probably still wondering why you're reading a review of a Superman movie on Horror Movie A Day. Two words: Ben Affleck. You gotta understand how much I truly love the guy - he was a Boston boy (like me!) who won an Oscar right when I was about to start film school. Later that year he co-starred in what would ultimately be one of my all-time favorite movies, and in 2003 he starred in a movie based on one of my three favorite comic characters: Daredevil. That movie wasn't that great and it's hardly one of his best performances, but as a fan of the character I was happy to see a guy I really liked in the role - one of those other three favorite characters was Spider-Man and it's not like I had any real affinity for Tobey Maguire. So who is the 3rd in that group? You guessed it: Batman. Most of the comics I read nowadays are of the non-hero variety, but I make two exceptions: Daredevil and Batman (Spider-Man lost me forever a few years back... maybe it's OK again now but I grew tired of all the dumb retcons and resets). That one of my favorite actors has played two of my favorite heroes is pretty nuts, I think, and as someone who has rooted for him time and time again (even in the mid-00's... some dark times those were) I couldn't have been more excited to see him take on this role and hopefully get back some cred in the eyes of comic fans. So far, it seems he has - even the harshest reviews seem to point out that he's great in the role and that they can't wait to see him in a solo movie (not to mention Jeremy Irons, who is a wonderfully gruff Alfred) without all of this other bullshit weighing him down.
Long story short, I want to stress that I was very much excited for this movie and had no reason to go in wanting to hate it or any of that; even with all of the bad reviews coming in (and trailers that didn't exactly leave me hopeful) I was still optimistic that I'd at least enjoy it as a fun timekiller, same as Deadpool. I in no way could have predicted that a sequel to a movie I enjoyed that added my boy Affleck to the mix as FUCKING BATMAN would leave me feeling annoyed and bored in equal measures. And even if I WAS planning to hate it, if there's anyone who can overcome that sort of thing it's Zack Snyder - I went into Dawn of the Dead fully expecting to despise it, and walked out a huge fan. But alas, I would estimate that there are maybe about 20 minutes of the movie that I actively enjoyed - that is not what I'd think of as a "fun timekiller". And since I couldn't quite convey why I was so disappointed with 140 character tweets (and my other site kind of already clogged with BvS coverage), I figured I'd "October Extras 2" this thing and offer anyone who might give a shit what I think about a comic movie something to read over the weekend. Fear not, I'll be back to reviewing killer scarecrow movies in due time.
But then again, there IS a monster and a lot of scary nightmare scenes, so I guess I couldn't have picked a better one to review here!
What say you?
* A movie that got a very funny shoutout in the teaser for The Lego Batman Movie, which was NOT the same one that's available online. It was by far the highlight of the moviegoing experience, and I suspect the movie will do very well - the teaser went over like gangbusters.
** After all the shit Snyder and co. took from Superman killing thousands while bashing Zod around, the movie hilariously keeps having reporters and army types explain (via quick voiceover) that this or that area is uninhabited, or that everyone has left for the day or whatever. But still, leading him back to the mainland when he's on an island is completely fucking ridiculous, and even dumber when you consider that the reason Batman hates Superman in the first place is because he took his very destructive fight to areas where people are around. Hypocrite!